How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Chad

My big adventure inside the counting room

It started as morbid curiosity, like rubbernecking a car crash. The Broward County Emergency Operations Center (EOC), where the manual recount for the presidential election was going on, is just two miles from my house, and I kept seeing the place all over the national news. So, on November 18 I decided to take a look.

When I arrived I walked past the press tents, live-television trucks, and uniformed Broward Sheriff's Office deputies into the building, where all I had to do was sign in to gain entry. I found the counting room on the second floor, but before I could catch a glimpse, a busy-looking guy came up to me and asked, "Are you Democrat?"

Yes, I told him.

Just watching Broward County Circuit Court Judge Robert Rosenberg examine ballots was enough to spur a migraine
Michael McElroy
Just watching Broward County Circuit Court Judge Robert Rosenberg examine ballots was enough to spur a migraine
Genuine Florida chads are fetching a pretty penny on the Internet
Michael McElroy
Genuine Florida chads are fetching a pretty penny on the Internet

"Are you here as an observer?" he asked.

"Sure," I answered.

"Have you been trained?" he asked.

"Uh, no."

"Okay, we need to get you up to the third floor for training," he said.

I didn't have the day to kill, so I told him no thanks and left. But I had seen my chance to get up close and personal with chads, those little paper buggers that could determine the leadership of the free world. It might make for a good news story, especially if I witnessed some chicanery by either party.

Republicans seemed certain that some mischief was afoot in there. On television that Saturday morning, they held up little plastic bags full of chads, reminiscent of President George H. W. Bush holding up bags of crack cocaine bought near the White House in 1989. (It turned out federal agents had set up the drug buy for the photo op.) The chad-shaking Republicans seemed so righteously indignant, you'd have thought it was a stained blue dress in their hands. Evidence, they called the chads. One of Bush's new spokesmen, Gov. Marc Racicot of Montana, remarked with outrage that if the American people could sit inside one of those evil counting rooms, they would wonder "what in the name of God is going on." On top of that, there was a complaint that some crazed Democrat had gone off and eaten a chad. (The humanity!) Apparently these Democratic operatives weren't just mischievous, they also were really hungry.

It seemed the Republicans were protesting too much, but the process, as they described it, did sound absurd. Pregnant chads were going to determine the presidency? This I had to see.

So on Monday, November 20, I went back to the EOC, where the Democrats on the third floor gave me a phone number in Hollywood to call. I dialed it, was given a Federal Highway address, and drove over. In a little strip-mall office, a guy named Adam sat me down and gave me the skinny on the recount process (telling me nothing about chads I hadn't already heard a dozen times). At the bottom of an information sheet, in bold letters, was the instruction: "DO NOT TALK TO THE PRESS." Little did they know. Behind him was a poster board that warned in Magic Marker: "Don't let any votes for Al get away!"

"You will be an advocate for Al Gore," Adam said, and then scheduled me to do some advocating the next morning.

It was a strange thing, me acting as a proxy for Gore. I actually have a long-standing bone to pick with the vice president. It centers around a summer day in 1988, when I was working as an intern in the U.S. Senate. I was walking up some stairs at the Russell Senate Building when I looked up and saw Gore walking down. I knew who he was; he was running for president. I looked big Al in the eye and said, "Hi." He didn't reciprocate. Instead the senator peered at me coldly, kind of noisily exhaled, and turned away. It may sound petty, but Gore's harrumph pissed me off. Who does that? I told myself: "I'll never vote for that jackass."

I voted for him this year anyway, personality defects and all. And now I was going to represent Gore, my own personal harrumpher, in a process that could win him the presidency.

When I stepped into the Democratic room at the EOC on the morning of November 21, I had to sign in again. This time they looked at my driver's license, but that was the extent of the security. No one had even checked to make sure I was a Democrat. Suppose Chuck Colson and G. Gordon Liddy, perhaps disguised as old ladies, popped in with fake IDs and called themselves Democrats? This process surely could be sabotaged, I thought.

While I drank coffee and waited, three lawyers from Philadelphia arrived as observers for Gore. I wanted to ask them all kinds of questions, but I couldn't, because then they'd ask me questions, and I might have to tell them that I was a reporter. That would blow the whole deal; my lone rule was that I wasn't going to lie to anybody.

After an hourlong wait, somebody briefed me again on the process and led me down to the bullpen -- another waiting room on the second floor. Thirty minutes later I was taken to the actual counting room, where again I had to cool my heels. The room, a command post for hurricanes and other countywide emergencies, reminded me a little bit of the War Room in Dr. Strangelove. The room, as seen on TV, was full of dozens of long conference tables packed with counters, or "inspectors," as they were called, and observers like me. The chairs were high backed and quite comfortable. Built into the walls were huge TV screens, some ten feet tall, turned on but muted. BSO deputies were everywhere.

In a line nearby were my Republican counterparts. I heard one of them say he was a lawyer from Ohio. A lot of the Republicans were wearing shirts that betrayed their Buckeye State origins (one commemorated Ohio's bicentennial; another was a Gov. Bob Taft campaign shirt). As the day wore on, I gathered that most of the people in these rooms were among the peculiar breed of snowbird this ongoing electoral snafu has attracted.

Two hours after I entered the building, I finally was led to a recount table and soon found that each ballot counting team requires a foursome: two inspectors and two observers. For every Democratic counter, there is a Republican one. The same goes for observers. The inspectors were all county employees; they were the only ones actually allowed to handle the ballots. We observers weren't allowed to touch even the table, much less a ballot.

My Democratic inspector was a middle-age guy we'll call John. He was like my doubles partner. Down the table from him were our opponents, a white-bearded Republican inspector known for the purposes of this story as Crenshaw, and a young GOP guy from Washington, D.C., who actually was named Tim.

John and Crenshaw began the proceedings by carefully taking our assigned ballots out of a box and stacking them on the table. John, using scraps of paper, then made six different categories for the ballots: "Gore," "Bush," "undervote," "overvote," "other," and "challenge."

Crenshaw, who I noticed had an American-flag patch on his jacket, began the process by picking up a ballot and holding it to the light for Tim to view. Tim saw that the third hole on the presidential column, which was the first column on the far-left side of the ballot, was punched cleanly. (The first hole was meaningless, the second was a vote for Bush, the third was a vote for Gore.)

So Tim said, "Three," meaning that he conceded that this ballot clearly was a vote for Gore. Crenshaw repeated, "three" and handed the ballot to John, who held it up for me. It was a clean vote. "You don't need to see the backs of threes," John said. "You aren't going to challenge any of those."

That made sense. Why would I challenge a ballot that the Republicans already conceded was a Gore vote? The next few votes were all unchallenged Gore votes as well, making the job easy for John and me. All I had to say was "yep," or "clean," or "good," and John would put the ballot in the Gore stack. Then Tim finally called a "two" for Bush, and John held it up for me. You can't see most hanging or dimpled chads from the front, so he turned it around for me to see the back of it. It was clean. "Yep," I said, and John put it in the Bush stack.

There were roughly 2400 ballots in our stacks, so many that other foursomes at our table helped us count them. Of the 2400, exactly 1987, or 83 percent, were clean, undisputed Gore votes. You might be able to imagine the monotony of that, but I can't say it was ever boring. There was a charged atmosphere to the process and, whether it was true or not, there was a feeling that if you didn't catch every questionable vote, it could be the difference in the election.

Only 223, or 4 percent, were Bush votes. There also were 57 undisputed overvotes, ballots on which more than one presidential candidate is punched. I noticed that at least a half-dozen people punched for both Al Gore and Ralph Nader. More perplexing were a few cards punched for both Bush and Gore. Others had chosen a whole slew of candidates, including some you've likely never heard of, like Monica Moorehead and David McReynolds.

Twenty of the 2400 were "others": undisputed votes for candidates other than Bush or Gore. Most were cast for Nader (nine) and Buchanan (eight). I can't remember the number of undisputed undervotes, but I know there weren't many. A true undervote is a ballot in which no president was punched. Not even a dimple. My recollection is that there were about twenty of them.

The really interesting ones, of course, were the challenges, the ballots with chad problems. And believe me, there were serious chad problems. I was shocked at how many chads were stuck to these ballots, each one representing an uncounted vote someone had cast for president, or senator, or school board, or whatever. I saw several ballots in which hanging chads were left behind on almost every column of the ballot. These voters had been shut out.

There were swinging-door chads (two corners firmly attached) and hanging chads (only one corner still attached). Some were hanging by a thread, ready to fall. I saw some chad phenomena that didn't have names. In the spirit of adding confusion to hype, I'll go ahead and coin them here. There's the "pricked chad," where the voter's stylus actually had gone through, but the faulty chad stayed in place. (As far as I could tell, pricked chads and pregnant chads have no cause-and-effect relationship.) And there is the "blown-out chad," in which the voter pushed the chad hard enough that light streamed in from all four sides, yet the four corners miraculously stayed in place.

I really studied those questionable ballots. John held them up in the light for as long as I wanted. Although it has been widely ridiculed by Republican pundits, looking at the ballots in the light is essential to the process.

There were lots of pregnant chads. It was like a Lamaze class in there. Such ballots actually look like dimples in the front and pimples when viewed from the back. I prefer the term pimpled, since most of the time you can't even see them from the front. And some were John Belushi pimples: big, fat, and ready to pop. Others were of the hard-and-painful variety -- barely there but there nonetheless. I challenged all of them. On a good dozen occasions, for instance, Tim and Crenshaw would call a ballot an undervote and pass it down. John would hold it up, and I'd see a fat indentation for Gore. I'd look over at Crenshaw and he would smile, knowing it was a good challenge and waiting for it.

When I challenged a pimple, Crenshaw, always good-natured, would reinspect it and say something like, "Well, there's six months pregnant, and then there's three days pregnant." Once he looked at me and said in mock consternation: "That's just a French kiss." Another time he uttered, "Why, she's just a couple days late."

In case you couldn't tell, we were having some fun. For instance John decided it was okay for us to cross party lines when it came to checking out women. One sweater-wearing GOP floor leader in particular stole our attention away from the weighty business at hand.

My partner also liked to joke about the severe attitude of some of the Bushites. "I don't know why, but Republicans tend to be very anal," he observed. "These people need to lighten up."

A good example of that was a twentysomething Republican woman in a foursome next to us. When a chad fell off a ballot onto the table, for instance, she pulled out her little plastic Baggie, which I suspect came with the Republican recount kit, and said, "I'll take that." Evidence.

But it wasn't all fun and games. I inadvertently put my elbow on the table at one point, earning a scolding from one of the supervising election workers ("I didn't know an elbow could knock out a chad," John remarked). Sometimes things got surreal, as when CNN was on the huge TV, and I watched live coverage of the room while I was inside it. "Should the manual recounts count?" flashed a headline on the screen. The Florida Supreme Court was meeting that very day to decide whether we were wasting our time.

Our group inspected roughly 1000 of the 2400 ballots in about six hours. When we left for a half-hour lunch break, armed deputies stood guard over our ballots. When we were finished inspecting, it seemed that the GOP's hysterical fears might come true: Gore was making out like a bandit. I had seen 43 uncounted Gore votes (22 hangers, 21 pimples) versus just 6 for Bush, a gain of 37 for Gore. Subtracting a portion of pimpled ballots that I believe were too slight to count as Gore votes, I estimate Gore had a net gain of about 30. I have to say, though, that any sizable pimple should have been counted as a vote. Sure, maybe a few people started punching for Gore or Bush and then pulled away, but hundreds? Alas, it wasn't my call. The fate of those ballots would be decided by Broward's three-member canvassing board.

When the inspecting concluded, John began counting, which itself was a process. The Gore and Bush votes, for instance, had to be broken up into groups of 25 ballots each; the three of us not counting had to watch John carefully to make sure he didn't goof. Once he reached 25, he squared them and held them up to the light for both me and Tim. If we saw the light shining through the three hole, it was a good stack. We caught and corrected two mistakes: one a hanging chad in the undisputed Gore pile, the other a Bush vote in a Gore stack.

While we counted, the foursome next to us with the Baggie-carrying Republican was doing the same. In that group a county bus driver, whom I heard say she also was a great-grandmother, was doing the counting. She tallied very slowly, with about three beats to each ballot. John counted like a bank teller and still took an hour to finish. They were going to be there forever.

"Uh, guys," said the young Republican with a slight Southern drawl, "after she counts 25, can we count them one more time? I'd be more comfortable. We only get one shot at this, y'all."

The three others in her foursome collectively groaned. Was this a Republican ploy to obstruct the process? I don't think so, but it was annoying. Lucky for great-grandma, an election worker came over and said two counts weren't allowed.

Of course not: This process was governed by common sense. It was a great system, wonderfully checked and balanced. There was no room for mischief. Even if Liddy did show up as a Democrat or if an old-school Daley crony pretended to be a Republican, he or she would have been discovered and kicked out. When it was over, I turned in my tally to the Democrats and left feeling as though I'd done something important. Broward did the job right -- unlike a couple of other South Florida counties, which shall remain nameless. But I can't help but feel a little ashamed that we still use a voting system that should have gone out with eight-track tapes. I also know in my gut that a manual recount of the entire state would be the only way to determine the legitimate winner. That won't happen, which means we can all look forward to a bastard President, no matter which side's lawyers prevail.

Governor Racicot was right on one point, though. There were plenty of chads lying around that room. A lot of people took them home as mementos, including me. Hell, they're going for five dollars apiece on eBay. Even so, that high-plains carpetbagger is missing the point: Chads don't pop out on their own, any more than they get pregnant by themselves. They fall out after being punched through by a voter. Too bad they didn't fall out November 7.

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